University of Utah running back Micah Bernard has been rightfully lauded for his willingness to play cornerback at the Rose Bowl, even starting that game as the depth at the position had been decimated due to injury.
As the dust has settled on the biggest game in program history, one can’t help ponder a handful of what-ifs from that 48-45 loss to Ohio State.
If All-Pac-12 cornerback JT Broughton hadn’t been lost for the season three-and-a-half months earlier at BYU, frankly, does Utah win its first Rose Bowl?
If Utah’s cornerbacks room had any semblance of health, does Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud still throw for 573 yards and six touchdowns? If even the second or third options behind Broughton, Faybian Marks and Zemaiah Vaughn, were available for cornerbacks coach Sharrieff Shah that day, does Jaxon Smith-Njigba catch 15 Stroud passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns?
We will of course never have the answer to such questions. Frustrations will linger, at least until the Utes get another crack in Pasadena. Another Rose Bowl run this fall would be rooted in who has returned for these Utes. The good news there is, Broughton is now healthy, a full spring practice participant coming off a torn labrum. Assuming continued good health, pencil Broughton in at one cornerback spot for the Sept. 3 opener vs. Florida opposite another All-Pac-12 talent, Clark Phillips III.
Utah’s cornerbacks, so devoid of depth behind Vaughn that the coaching staff was compelled to make a drastic, albeit temporary position switch for the Rose Bowl, all of a sudden look quite formidable on paper with the return of Broughton.
“JT’s long-range, top-end speed, I’m seeing a lot more, and that wasn’t apparent the first two days,” Shah said, noting Broughton looked out of shape earlier in spring practice due to lack of football activity for so long while rehabbing the shoulder. “He’s looking a lot better.”
“Everything so far has been solid, my shoulder is 100%,” Broughton said. “I’m starting to move better and it’s just coming together.”
In a Sept. 11 loss at BYU, Broughton went up to make a play on the ball, but came down awkwardly on his right shoulder. A self-proclaimed “tough guy,” Broughton knew something was wrong with the shoulder after the play. He made his way to the Utah sideline as his shoulder was not stuck in place, but was in a position where Broughton could not stretch his arm all the way out. Utah medical personnel popped the shoulder back in place, Broughton finished the game, but was ruled out for the season days later.
This, on the heels of being named All-Pac-12 honorable mention during the five-game, COVID-impacted 2020 season.
“It was devastating, watching my team,” Broughton said. “I was proud of them for winning the Pac-12 championship, being able to accomplish that. It was devastating to see the Rose Bowl. I know I could have helped and made a difference. Micah is a tough guy. Being able to go from running back to cornerback is difficult. I’m glad he was able to step up to the plate.”
Added Phillips: “He’s looking good, he’s looking like the guy I know. He’s consistently putting together days. Great day after great day, the dude is working his butt off and he’s committed to being one of the guys on this defense, as we know he can be. We’re going to continue to make strides towards being the defense we all know we can be.”
The fact that Bernard started and played extensively at cornerback in the Rose Bowl guaranteed there would be questions pertaining to depth moving forward.
Beyond Broughton, Phillips and Malone Mataele at the nickel, Marks, who was lost for the season to a broken ankle at Arizona on Nov. 13, will not be a full participant this spring, nor will Vaughn, who was playing well in place of Marks before he was lost for the season due to injury during the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 3. Both are expected to be ready for fall camp in early August.
Beyond Marks and Vaughn, who have 11 career starts between them, the position room is very green. Shah on Thursday singled out Caine Savage as one option who has taken “good steps forward,” while Kenzel Lawler, who moved from safety to cornerback this spring, is leading the cornerbacks in interceptions this spring.
Savage has seen action in 12 games across two seasons, but mostly on special teams, while Lawler, a third-year sophomore, has yet to make his collegiate debut.
“We’re a little bit better in our depth right now, just a little bit,” Shah said.